Facing Powerlessness


Steve Milan talks about the single thing he hears most often as a therapist.

“For a man, I think helplessness is the most terrifying thing we can feel.” I have said this as I sit with many of my male clients – and to many of their partners in couples therapy. We are so scared of helplessness that we will hurt ourselves and others to make it go away. We’ll do just for the sake of doing so we don’t feel helpless. We’ll pursue any addiction (sex, alcohol, work, video games, writing) so we don’t feel weakness. We’ll choose anger and aggression so we can feel the illusion of power in the face of our powerlessness. We’ll plan, control, create organizations, make wads of money so we can claim success. We will find a problem, any problem, to solve just so we don’t have to sit with our own stories of inadequacy.

We’ll show up in couples therapy defending our right to solve our partner’s problems rather than sit with her… and listen… and be with her as she vents. Being with her is tough – and frustrating. We’re not good at it. And it doesn’t make the thing that’s hurting her go away. So we have to sit in the shit of our own powerlessness if we try to do what she asks and just listen to her. Screw that! I just want to solve the damn problem!

And yet, she wants us to just be with her – and somehow she says it helps. It may help her – and we see that it may be better for the relationship on the rare occasion when we are able to just sit and not solve. But it feels terrible to have no tools – no way to make it better and no way to sit with the discomfort. We look at her helplessness in the situation and want to distance ourselves from it.

Despite all of our efforts to deny it, helplessness is so much part of our humanness. If we are not strong enough to sit in it, we cannot handle even the small frustrations of life – traffic, minor illnesses or injuries, a dropped ball, a lost game. And we definitely can’t deal with the fact that our kids will grow up and leave, that their hearts or our hearts will be broken, that people we love will grow old and die, that we too will die.

Despite all of our efforts to deny it, helplessness is so much part of our humanness. If we are not strong enough to sit in it, we cannot handle even the small frustrations of life – traffic, minor illnesses or injuries, a dropped ball, a lost game. And we definitely can’t deal with the fact that our kids will grow up and leave, that their hearts or our hearts will be broken, that people we love will grow old and die, that we too will die. A client once told me that letting one of his patients die was “the ultimate failure”. He wasn’t ready yet to acknowledge the limits of his control and his ultimate helplessness over death.

And, as I see with so many therapy lessons that I believe and espouse, I am hardly more able than he is to accept the limits of my humanness. My own helplessness these days relates to my son’s impending move out of state to go to college. “It’s just the way of the world,” I tell myself. “I should be happy for him.” And I am happy for him! But I’m also aware of how much I want to hold onto the boy he was, how something like a lump arises in me when I look at pictures of him as a toddler with curly blonde wisps covering his head. I want him back. And I want my old, functional body back – the one that was able to carry him up to his bed, completely collapsed and trusting in my arms, and kiss his forehead as he sleeps.

I can’t do anything about this. He, or at least his attention and excitement, is already 900 miles away, at the college where I will drop him in 45 days. And I don’t want to diminish his excitement with my loss or my fears for his future. I know that he will eventually feel, and want to reject, his own helplessness. I hope that I have given him enough (of something I can’t even name) to stand in it, and find the freedom on the other side.

I want to fiercely sit in my own helplessness and the terror that comes with it, because I believe that this seat tells me how precious he is to me. And this seat also frees me from the responsibility for his future beyond my role of loving him. And it is from this seat that I can offer something to him, and to so many clients, who daily encounter their own helplessness.

I plan to be with my helplessness and with my son for the next 45 days as much as possible. One day, over eighteen years ago when my son was still in utero, I had the thought that I wanted so much for him, but I didn’t want to be restrictive in any way with my wants as I wasn’t sure what he’d need, so I just decided to want for him unconditionally. I came to think of wanting for as love. When he leaves, I will learn new ways of wanting for. Before he leaves, I will practice a different kind of love, one I am calling being with.

Photo—tausend und eins, fotografik/Flickr

About Steve Milan

Steve Milan, LCSW is a therapist in Austin, TX who works primarily with men and couples. He is also a father, a son, an ex-husband, an ex-CPA, a partner to his sweetie, and an Ultimate Frisbee player. Steve has been writing for his own sake off and on over the years.


  1. John Smith says:

    Exceptionally well written, Steve. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Beverly Alexander says:

    Wow, Steve, you have captured this so well, so beautifully, and with such acceptance. I see the reaction to powerlessness so much in my own life and in those that sit across from me. I will certainly share this, and appreciate the grace with which you write.

  3. Tom Brechlin says:

    My helplessness came when my daughter got married. Walking her down the aisle, lifting her veil, kissing her and giving her hand to her soon to be husband was really really hard. It was a day I dreaded from the moment she was born but it was inevitable that it would happen … and it did.

    My son, who just graduated from college (went to school locally) is my buddy. I still feel a helplessness in that as a dad, I still want to protect him, shield him from different negative aspects in life but I can’t. Then I think of my own dad and how I wish he was still around for me. He passed away when I was 20. Good gosh we’d be close. So that’s when I start to see me from my sons perspective ….. I am to my son what my dad would have been to me.

    When I broke down at my daughters wedding during the father daughter dance, the photographer got up close. After the dance, he said what he saw and photographed was true love between a dad and his daughter. When your son leaves, if you feel like breaking down, DO IT!. When our hearts break, even when it appears that they shouldn’t because the event is “good” … a broken heart is still broken and that when we give into our feelings, we are in fact letting go of the helplessness and taking control of our feelings and accepting them as being part of us. Does that make any sense? It does to me…

    • Steve Milan says:

      Yes, Tom. Accepting feelings makes all kinds of sense to me. I am glad that you and your daughter have that beautiful picture of true love in its human form, and that you feel the legacy of your father with your son. I’m so glad to still have my father, and we continue to grow up together.

      I started to realize early on in parenting that raising kids was a long series of breakthroughs and heartbreaks. When I took my son on a 2,000-mile college tour last summer, I started preparing for this big letting go. Through this year, I have forgotten about it on a conscious level many times, but when I return to my heart I feel the constant impact of this ending/beginning. Now I am counting the days until we launch our next long drive – 854 miles with him and 854 miles without him. I expect to feel a lot, and to release a lot (I think of my tears and rants as releasing rather than breaking down) and we’ll talk about it some. But I’ll make sure I do the deepest expression outside of earshot of his new peers. While a dad who feels may be a good model for a kid, a dad who breaks down in front of your new college roommates may be less appreciated. 🙂

      All in all, I think he has some pretty great internal and external resources to help him deal with whatever comes next. And from many miles away, I will continue to “want for” him unconditionally.

  4. There has been quite a few great posts lately on GMP, and this is certainly one of them.

    I think, that what keeps us emotionally stiffled is our inability or unwillingness to accept our unwanted and uncontrollable emotions or experiences. Only by letting go of trying to control, we can become more free. We can start to become human beings instead of human doings….

    My personal experience is, that mindfulness meditation and practicing acceptance helps a lot, but that there will always be a struggle.

    Again, great post!

    • Steve Milan says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Lars. I agree with you completely. Control is completely overrated, and acceptance is the enlivening path. But it’s kind of like freefalling – terrifying and exhilarating.

      My therapy practice is based in Hakomi, a body centered, mindfulness based practice of assisted self study – and I don’t know how I would have gotten through these years of parenting without meditation.

  5. Wendy Gonzalez says:

    Steve, I would venture to say that your vulnerability and “powerlessness” are some of your greatest traits.

    • Steve Milan says:

      Thanks, Wendy. I’d suggest that this is true for all of us. One thing that I’ve found to be true in therapy is that – no matter the specifics, the gender, whatever – when a person truly opens themselves to be seen, they are at their most beautiful. I can’t help but be drawn to them.

  6. Wow – great meditation on powerlessness. Envisioning a physical chair where I can sit and free myself (and the world) from my need to control outcomes is a very helpful exercise. I need to be reminded daily that I am not responsible for all the crap I think I am (or want to be.) Thanks for the reminder.

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